Drying Food for Long Term Storage
While most people are familiar with dry goods for storage (like dry beans, rice or flour), it is not always the first thing you think of as a way to store your own fresh produce. That is, to dehydrate your own food for storage.
Pros and Cons
Home-dried food will last a very long time in storage, and can be stored in any moisture-proof container without much other special care. With the water removed, food is also very light and compact which makes for more efficient storage. Most items will store for 3 to 5 years without any special conditions.
There are a couple of downsides to drying your own food as well. Firstly, it will take a substantial amount of water to reconstitute your food and that can be a problem if clean water is at a premium during an emergency. Some dried fruits can be eaten while still dry (and are even better that way) but most will need some soaking and simmering to soften them up enough to be palatable.
The other downside is the taste and texture of the rehydrated foods. Some foods will be nearly like their fresh state, but others will still be a little chewy even after simmering in water for a while. They do retain a lot of their nutritional value though which makes dried food a very healthy choice.
Some foods can be dried using your regular oven, but if you really want to do a lot of dehydrating for storage then you should invest in a proper dehydrator. Simple ones are under $50 and they can run up to $300 and over for a larger model.
Cheaper dehydrators are made up of nested slotted trays that sit on top of one another, with a fan that blows hot air through the unit. Larger machines have a solid cabinet with trays that slide in and out. Some will also have a thermostat that allows you to adjust the temperature. This is a handy feature but most foods will dry just fine if you do them all at the same standard temperature.
You can also dry food outdoors using natural heat and sunlight. In that case, you will need several mesh trays to lay your food out on. The trays should be set out in such a way that they get air flow from underneath, but setting them out on a table would work if that was all you can arrange. A fine sheet of cheesecloth laid over the trays will keep the insects away and still let the air circulate. As you can imagine, you cannot regulate the heat of the sun or the amount of wind you get so this type of dehydrating will require more monitoring so you don't scorch your food nor bring it in while still too damp. It is really more practical to use a dehydrator.
How to Dry Food
You can use a home dehydrator to dry any type of fruit or vegetable. Even some meats, though you will need to take a little more time to learn the details of making your own jerky in order to keep it safe for consumption after storage.
All you need to do is peel (if necessary) and slice your food material, and lay the slices out on the trays with no overlapping. Then you just leave the dehydrator running as long as it takes to completely dry out the food, which can take anywhere from 4 to 24 hours. Depending on the type of food, it will be hard and crisp, or a more leathery when done.
Some foods (mostly fruit) will brown when dried. This is strictly an appearance issue and has no effect on the taste or nutritional value of your dried foods. If you wish to prevent browning, you need to dip your sliced fruits in an acid dip before you set them out on the drying trays. Powders can be purchased for this reason, and mixed with water to make a dip. Soak your fruit according to the instructions (usually around 5 to 10 minutes) and then dehydrate as normal.
One other possible treatment before you start drying is blanching. This works the same as in freezing, and it used to stop enzymes from degrading the food over time. You'll need to do this with some vegetables. Heat in boiling water for a few minutes then dunk immediately in ice cold water.
As mentioned, there is a wide range of times for properly drying food. If you are planning on using dehydration as a part of your food storage program, then you need to know how long each item needs or you can end up with moisture in your stock (which will lead to mold). Here are some basic foods you may want to dry for storage, as well as whether they should have an acid dip. Remember, the dip is going to be optional in any case. It is only to prevent browning.
|Drying Time||Dip or Blanche?||Other Notes|
|Apples||6 to 8 hours||Dip|
|Bananas||8 to 10 hours||Dip||Eaten dry only, do not refresh|
|Strawberries||10 to 16 hours|
|Blueberries||12 to 24 hours||Pop the skins by boiling briefly then dropping in a bowl of ice water|
|Peaches||10 to 12 hours||Dip|
|Pears||12 to 16 hours||Dip|
|Carrots||12 to 18 hours||Blanch 2 minutes|
|Corn||8 to 12 hours||Blanch 2 minutes|
|Cabbage||12 to 14 hours||Shredded dries best|
|Tomatoes||14 to 16 hours|
|Green beans||10 to 12 hours||Blanch 2 minutes|
|Peas||12 to 18 hours||Blanch 2 minutes|
|Potatoes||14 to 20 hours||Blanch 6 minutes|
|Peppers (bell)||8 to 12 hours|
|Zucchini||6 to 8 hours|
|Pumpkin||16 to 18 hours||Blanch 2 minutes||Drying the orange flesh only|
|Broccoli||10 to 16 hours||Blanch 3 minutes|
|Cauliflower||12 to 16 hours||Blanch 1 minute|
|Turnip||14 to 20 hours||Blanch 3 minutes|
|Eggplant||18 to 20 hours|
|Beets||8 to 10 hours||Drying the large root, not the greens|
Since dry foods are very common as long-term storage options, you can find a complete list of foods and their storage details in the last section of this book. The chapter on containers will also have more on how to pack up your dried food for later use.
Cooking with Dehydrated Foods
Many fruits can be eaten while still dry, and make a healthy snack that transports well. But if you want to soften them up for cooking, including all the vegetables, you will have to rehydrate them. Rather than try to list out all the various times and cooking temperatures, your best approach is to either soak in room-temperature water or simmer over heat. You can rehydrate with simmering usually within 20 minutes but some foods will take 30 minutes to an hour to soften up. When they are soft, you can continue cooking with them or eat them on their own. Soaking without added heat can take several hours.
Other Dry Goods
This has covered the many foods you can dry yourself for storage, but you should also be aware of the many other types of foods that would fall under the category of "dry". This would cover flour, rice, dry beans, dry pasta, many baking products (yeast, baking soda, baking powder), corn meal, oats, and more. Since you are not going to be drying these yourself, they weren't included above. But you can see more on how to store these types of food in the containers section.